When I access Chinese-language Daoist texts (from China) I notice that the dates for lives lived by the Daoist Masters are often extraordinary long! This is not always the case, but often enough to matter. Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was not a Daoist - but as a Ch'an Buddhist Master - he lived into his 120th year. By accident, over the years I have found myself minutely researching his life to see if I can find any hint of misunderstanding, mis-recording, omission, or error - and I have found no such thing. In fact, when I extended the search to cross-reference key events of his life with a) well-known world events, and b) the biographies of others - at every single point everything overlaps and interconnects perfectly!
I cannot find an academic 'error' in the construction or the content of Master Xu Yun's biography! Xen Cue Lu (Xu Yun's biographer) - questioned Master Xu Yun a number of times about his birth-date, but each time Master Xu Yun repeated exactly the same (traditional) Chinese birthdate! As a number of Western commentators were pouring scorn on Xu Yun's assumed age (even when he was still alive) - Charles Luk respectfully approached Master Xu Yun to ask about his birthdate, and yet again the time period covering 1839-1840 was given (sometimes Xu Yun's dates are given as '1839-1959' which is correct due to the difference between the traditional Chinese calendar and the Western calendar).
Then, the internal evidence within his biography definitely supports this birthdate - particularly the contents of letters received from the two teenaged girls who briefly lived with him following their marriage. Both had eventually become Buddhist nuns and much later independently stated his birth year as '1840' - confirming that he left home when he was nineteen-years of age (in 1859) to ordain as a Buddhist monk! Again, both women confirmed that the marriage was not consummated.
Translator’s Note: As a scholar reading Chinese texts regarding the life and times of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), I am aware that Master Hai Deng (1902-1989) was a disciple of Xu Yun and generally very well respected at the Zhenru Temple. For a short-time, Master Hai Deng served as ‘acting’ Head Monk (Abbot). He is photographed with Xu Yun and was a very sincerely and well-respected Ch’an monk. As far as I am aware, he made no claims about his own abilities. Within Master Hai Deng’s biography, it states that he trained in the branch of the Shaolin Temple situated in Sichuan province – a point of fact not mentioned in this article. When Master Xu Yun checked Master Hai Deng’s credentials – he was satisfied that everything was in order and that no fraud was being enacted. However, another close disciple of Master Xu Yun was the Old Venerable Monk Ti Guang (体光). Master Ti Guang was with Master Xu Yun when he passed away. Master Ti Guang was also an expert in Chinese martial arts and one-day ‘challenged’ Master Hai Deng to a ‘fight’ that tests skill. When this event happened – Master Ti Guang quickly defeated Master Hai Deng who accepted the outcome without any sense of resentment. This fight took place in the grounds of the Zhenru Temple. ACW (24/1.2021)
In the 1980s, China’s domestic development entered the fast lane, and cultural life was unprecedentedly active. It was no longer the case of the dominance of a model drama – as a hundred schools of thought contended. The movie - "Sichuan Unusual Records" (四川奇趣录 - Si Chuan Qi Qu Lu) filmed by Hong Kong Great Wall Films - became an overnight sensation once it was broadcast. This Movie featured Master Hai Deng who – despite his old age – was still able to perform amazing martial feats of strength, agility and endurance! He was filmed supporting his entire bodyweight (in an inverted position) seemingly ‘balancing’ through the power of just two fingers. This became known in the West as the cultivated practice of ‘Two-Finger Zen’ (二指禅 - Er Zhi Ch’an). Even young people find it difficult to perform ‘hand-stands’ and even less could hold their bodyweight even through a single palm! As this was the case, how could this old Ch’an Buddhist monk (who was already in his 80s) still be able to perform such a feat? Of course, because of this footage and photographs – Master Hai Deng became instantly famous all over China! There were rumours that things were not as they seem even at the time – but these were viewed as the product of jealousy, disrespect and ignorance. Master Hai Deng was an old Ch’an Buddhist monk who had spent his life quietly cultivating the Dharma and training with some of the most famous Buddhist practitioners (such as the Great Master Xu Yun 1840-1959).
What really made Master Hai Deng's reputation instantly rise to its apex was his contribution to the documentary film entitled "Shaolin Temple" (少林寺 - Shao Lin Si). At that time, martial arts films were in the ascendant and were the most popular themed. Although the ticket price was comparatively small - the box office still made 160 million! This Shaolin Temple film became an immediate hit in China and throughout the world! Much was made of the abilities of Master Hai Deng’s superb martial arts abilities. It was said he fought off all evil forces that attacked China and led the resistance against Japanese aggression! These stories took on a mind of their own and were repeated far and wide - with each re-telling adding more and more layers of incredible detail! Generally speaking, Master Hai Deng was unaware of most of this additional bolstering as he was not asked whether any of it was correct. As a mature Ch’an monk - Master Hai Deng’s attitude was that ‘winning and losing’ did not matter as he maintained a ‘still’ and ‘all-embracing’ mind.
After the death of Master Hai Deng in early 1989 - a man named Jing Yongxiang (敬永祥) published a long biography "The Hai Deng Phenomenon - The God-Making Movement of the 1980s" (海灯现象——八十年代的造神运动 - Hai Deng Xian Xiang – Ba Shi Nian Dai De Zao Shen Yun Dong). This was designed to clear-up all the misunderstandings about Master Hai Deng and in so doing, set the historical record ‘straight’. What is significant about this author is that he was the first journalist to highlight Master Hai Deng’s extraordinary martial arts skills in the early 1980s! This was when he worked as a Reporter for a local Newspaper. Jing Yongxiang had heard that there was an extraordinary ‘old’ Ch’an Buddhist monk living in the area – and he decided to interview him – eventually penning a 940-character article.
Jing Yongxiang explains in his book that he is responsible for the hysteria that eventually developed around Master Hai Deng. This was never his intention when he first wrote of Master Hai Deng, his spiritual lineage and martial arts abilities despite being in his 80s – that matters would escalate and cascade out of control – so that a media blitz would be caused both in China (and abroad)! He feels that this situation is his responsibility and that he must put matters right. The question everyone asks is whether Master Hai Deng possessed extraordinary abilities or not? Master Hai Deng was born in 1902, into a family with the surname ‘Fan’ (范). This family lived in Jiangyou area of Sichuan province. His mother died when he was young, and he was brought up by his father (who was a tailor) and lived in poverty.
When he was seven-years-old, he began the study of martial arts with his uncle, and then started taking his academic career seriously. Indeed, he excelled as a scholar and at fourteen-years-old he earned a scholarship (by coming ‘first’ in the examination) to enter Mianyang Normal University. During each year of study Master Hai Deng earned first-place out of the entire class. Two years later, Master Hai Deng graduated in first-place. He felt he was too young to work as a primary school teacher – and so he travelled to Chengdu instead – where he was admitted to the Sichuan Law and Political School and Police Supervisor School – both being judicial schools. Master Hai Deng became adept in economics – but at twenty-six-years-old, he encountered two Shaolin monks who had escaped warlords (in Henan) and had come to Chengdu to hide. This was 1928 – the year the Nationalist Government in China decided to destroy the famous Shaolin Temple and kill the monks, etc. Master Hai Deng (whose lay-name was ‘Fan Wu Bing’ 范无病) saw these monks performing their martial arts and was immediately drawn to the Shaolin tradition!
As these Shaolin fighting arts are complex and difficult to learn – Master Hai Deng decided to stay with the Shaolin monk named ‘Great Master Ru Feng’ (汝峰大师 - Ru Feng Da Shi) for a number of days. However, Master Ru Feng stated that ‘Shaolin martial arts are not usually passed-on in this manner. If you sincerely want to learn, you must pay your respects at the East Mountain.’ Such an effort would require thirty-two lamps to be lit for the Buddha – which would require a very large amount of burning-oil! This might be where he acquired the Dharma-name of ‘Hai Deng’ (海灯) - or ‘Sea of Lamps’! Master Hai Deng must have passed all the required tests and acts of worship – as he was permitted to study ‘Tong Zi Gong’ (童子功), ‘Lian Jing Hua Qi’ (炼精化气) and ‘Lian Jing Huan Shen’ (炼精化神), etc. An issue here is this. The Shaolin Temple Boxing System is renown as a style specialising in ‘External’ (外 - Wai) technique – and yet according to this list – Master Hai Deng was initiated into the very different ‘Internal’ (内 - Nei) system of training.
Afterwards, Master Hai Deng visited many famous temples requesting instruction - and integrated hundreds of different fighting techniques to mature his martial arts ability. During this period, he went to the very strict Shaolin Temple (in Henan) to ask eminent monks for advice. However, Master Hai Deng’s request was refused because he was not a Ch’an monk ordained at the Shaolin Temple – and was not a lay-person (from a ‘known’ local family) registered at the Shaolin Temple. As the Head Monk had not personally authorised Master Hai Deng to receive instruction from the Great Monk Ru Feng – there was some confusion as to how he had come into possession of genuine Shaolin knowledge. During the 1950s - Master Hai Deng became famous for entering fighting tournaments and beating the local and regional champions with ease! During this time, he even trained under Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) at the Zhenru (真如) Ch’an Temple situated on ‘Yunju’ (云居) Mountain in Jiangxi province. For a short-time – at the insistence of Master Xu Yun – Master Hai Deng was the 'acting’ Head Monk (Abbot) at the Zhenru Ch’an Temple (whilst the actual Head Monk was away on a special mission). He returned to and settled in his hometown of Jiangyou during the late 1960s. In 1982, Shaolin Principal Monk Shi Xingzheng - [释行正] (appointed as Shaolin Head Monk at the end of 1983) passed through Jiangyou and had a good chat with Master Hai Deng. Master Hai Deng was invited (with his disciples) to visit the Shaolin Temple in Henan – and stay for a while as a ‘Wandering Monk’ (行脚僧 - Xing Jiao Seng)
This time period coincided with the popularity of the movie entitled "Shaolin Temple". His disciples lost no time in writing a manuscript about the origins of Master Hai Deng and his ‘mystical’ association with Shaolin. Generally speaking, what goes on deep inside the Shaolin Temple is off-limits to the media with little knowledge being in the public domain. The Shaolin Temple proper is very different to the numerous Wushu Colleges that surround it and which offer disciplined martial arts study to the general public. As the stories of Master Hai Deng multiplied and spread – the media falsely believed that he was the ‘Head Monk’ (Abbot) of the Shaolin Temple of Henan. This caused a problem in the usually tranquil temple as Master Hai Deng (and his disciples) possessed no authority or status whatsoever. They were simply ‘invited’ guests who had outstayed their welcome. To remedy this situation, the actual Head Monk – Shi Xingsheng - personally issued an ‘Eviction Order’ which saw Master Hai Deng (and his disciples ‘expelled’ from the Shaolin Temple!
After he became famous, Master Hai Deng participated in frequent social activities, starred in movies and even visited the United States - serving as a martial arts instructor. All this was vigorously exaggerated by the media, and he became famous. This was all added to by the popularity of the film ‘Shaolin Temple’ - which saw ‘myth’ and ‘reality’ become entwined. This is how a simple Ch’an monk was mistakenly believed to be a high-ranking member of the Shaolin Temple who possessed ‘mystical’ powers! It was even believed that Master Hai Deng was the only person to possess the ‘genuine’ martial art (and health-giving) exercises associated with Bodhidharma! Of the three arts he is associated with, a number of experts have expressed ‘doubts’ about the quality of transmission. These arts are 1) 'Tong Zi Gong’ (童子功) - or ‘Virginal (Yang) Purity (or ‘Young Boy’) Cultivation’, 2) 'Two-Finger Zen’ (二指禅 - Er Zhi Ch’an) and 3) 'Plum Blossom Stake' (梅花桩 - Mei Hua Zhuang) - ‘Standing and Stepping on High Logs’. (In the South of China this is often referred to as ‘Wahlum Forest’, etc).
In the famous documentary – which saw Master Hai Deng perform the two-finger Ch’an hand-stand - he was old and this accomplishment had a greater symbolic significance. In his youth he had performed variants of this exercise – changing position, altering the hands and body orientation, etc. Indeed, Master Hai Deng was very famous for this ability – but he seldom performs the exercise on one-hand whilst holding a full hand-stand! It is unclear whether he was ever able to perform this exercise – even when young! Most witnesses recall that whenever they remember seeing Master Hai Deng performing this exercise – he invariably used one-hand (and two-fingers) whilst his feet touched the floor and his body was side-on! What happened during the filming was that the director had Master Hai Deng’s feet pulled-up into position by a rope around each ankle. Once in the inverted upside-down position – both ropes were removed and 80-year-old Master Hai Deng did legitimately ‘hold’ the position (with one foot supported on the wall but cleverly hidden through camera-work). After some minutes, Master Hai Deng was helped down and back onto his feet.
Chinese Language Reference:
史海寻踪 - 发布时间：20-03-0722:59
(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Author’s Note: Generally speaking, the birthdate accepted for Master Xu Yun is ‘1840-1959’, but on occasion, the date is also given as ‘1839-1959’. My own objective research suggests this date is correct, even if it seems unlikely according to today’s average life-spans. As far as I am concerned, whilst applying rigorous academic standards of research, I have been unable to disprove this date – hence my conclusion it is correct after considering all the supporting evidence. Whether Master Xu Yun was born in ‘1839’ or ‘1840’ appears to originate with his Chinese-language autobiography entitled ‘Empty Cloud Dharma Master Autobiography’ (虚云法师年谱 - Xu Yun Fa Shi Nian Pu), where the following line is recorded in the opening paragraphs: ‘道光二十年庚子一歲（一八四○年）(Dàoguāng èrshí niángēng zi yī suì (yībāsì ￮nián). This translates into English as:
‘In the 20th year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang - which is also the 37th (庚子 - Geng Zi) year of the 60-year cycle of the ‘Yellow Calendar’ (黃曆 - Huang Li) - I was one (1) years old.’
The ‘Geng Zi’ year for this cycle corresponds to the Western (solar) year of ‘1840’ - which is confirmed as the 20th year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang. Master Xu Yun states that he was born in this year, and was simultaneously ‘one years old’. How could this be? In traditional Chinese thinking, when a child is born, they are already one year old (as they have spent around that time in the womb). Out of respect, when a person dies, a year is added to their life out of respect, but this does not seem to have happened in Xu Yun’s case. Xu Yun was born in 1840, and was considered one year old at the time. This explains the line in the autobiography, but what is odd is that even in China there is a ‘doubt’ about the exact meaning of this sentence. In the English translation of this autobiography – termed ‘Empty Cloud’ by Charles Luk (1898-1978) - the birth year is given as 1840, and the birthdate as the 29th day of the 7th lunar month – which equates to the Western date of the 26th of August, 1840. It would seem that some people are of the opinion that Master Xu Yun was born in 1839 but chooses to explain his birth under the calendar date of ‘1840’. At least this is the only reasoning I have so far been able to discover. As we are engaged in remembering the 60th anniversary of Xu Yun’s Parinirvanna, it is important that we consider all aspects of his existence and passing.
According to the lunar calendar of China, the date of the 29th day of the 7th month is significant as it is simultaneously the birthday of Master Xu Yun (虚云), and the day on which the birth of Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha (既是地藏 - Ji Shi De Cang) is also commemorated. When the details of Master Xu Yun’s extraordinarily long-life are looked backed upon, it is true to say that there would be few who would remain ‘unmoved’ by his example, of suffering and dedication. Even when very young, he had no interest in the ordinary (outside) world and often refused to leave the house, but when older he gave-up the life of the householder and extensively traversed the mountains and the waterways. After practicing the Dharma for over a hundred years, all his sufferings were forgotten (and made trivial) compared to the vastness of his realised enlightenment and extent of the power of his physical appearance in the world. Master Xu Yun led others steadfastly to the ‘other shore’, and like the Moon reflected water, he was able to inspire others to penetrate the empty mind ground and perceive that which is beyond all duality.
This article has been written on the 29th day of the 7th lunar month (2008). This day each year is commemorated as the ‘Day of Manifestation’ of the Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha (a metaphysical appearance ‘free’ of human parents, conception or conventional birth), and the actual ‘birthday’ of Master Xu Yun (1839-1959) - the product of the amorous interaction of his two human-parents. The family of the Venerable Old Monk Xu Yun (虚云老和尚 - Xu Yun Lao He Shang) was originally from the ‘Xiangxiang’ (湘乡) area of Hunan province, situated in central China. Master Xu Yun was born on the 29th day of the 7th lunar month, during the 19th year of the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor named ‘Daoguang’ (道光) - which equates to the year ‘1839’. His family name was ‘Xiao’ (萧), and he was given the (ordained) Dharma-Names ‘Gu Yan’ (古岩) - or ‘Ancient Rock’ and ‘De Qing’ (德清) - or ‘Virtuous Clarity’. However, in his 61st year of life (1900-1901), after much travelling and hardship, Master Xu Yun retreated into the remote hills and changed his name to ‘Empty Cloud’ (虚云 - Xu Yun) as a means to escape attention and practice meditation in isolation. According the Chinese lunar calendar, Master Xu Yun left his body on the 12th day of the 9th month, in the year 1959. He passed away in the ‘Reality Thusness’ Temple (真如寺 - Zhen Ru Si), situated on ‘Yun Ju’ (云居) Mountain, in Yongxiu County, Jiangxi province. Master Xu Yun was in his 120th year, and his 101st year as an ‘ordained’ Ch’an Buddhist monk. His relics are preserved at the ‘South Enlightenment’ Temple (南华寺 - Nan Hua Si), situated near Shaoguan City in Guangdong province.
Old Master Xu Yun is acknowledged as legitimately inheriting ALL five Dharma-gates (or ‘lineages’) of the Ch’an School. The five Ch’an gates are 1) Linji lineage (临济宗 - Lin Ji Zong) 2) Caodong lineage (曹洞宗 - Cao Dong Zong) 3) Wei Yang lineage (沩仰宗 - Wei Yang Zong) 4) Yunmen lineage (云门宗 - Yun Men Zong) and 5) Fayan lineage (法眼宗 - Fa Yan Zong). This is why Master Xu Yun is known today as the ‘Ch’an Lineage - Grand Authority’ (禅宗泰斗 - Ch’an Zong Tai Dou). Indeed, throughout his lifetime he has incomparably and greatly contributed to the inheritance and promotion of Ch’an Buddhism.
When he was 17 with his mind set on leaving the world, his father arranged for him to marry two young women – one surnamed ‘Tian’ (田) and the other surnamed ‘Tan’ (谭) - but Master Xu Yun ignored them and continued his life of living quietly and meditating in isolated parts of the house. In this way he retained the purity of his mind, heart and body with no impurity of any kind. With every thought he directed his attention toward the Buddha without fail. At 19 years old he bid farewell to his two ‘wives’, and quietly left the family home to head into the hills in search of Buddhist ordination. He eventually reached the ‘Bubbling Spring’ Temple (涌泉寺 - Yong Qi Si), where, at the age of 20 years old, he received full Bodhisattva Vow and Vinaya Discipline Ordination from Venerable Old Master Miaolian (妙莲老和尚 - Miao Lian Lao He Shang).
The Old Venerable Xu Yun dedicated his lifetime to self-cultivation and worked very hard to purify his mind and body, and to attain full enlightenment. He lived alone on top of mountains and deep within caves for several years. As he sat in meditation radiating peace and compassion, the wild animals were not afraid of him, and he lived next to wolves and tigers with no fear whatsoever. When thirsty he drank rain water or dew, and when hungry he ate wild pine cones and whatever vegetables grew around him. When his practice was well-established, he visited the four great (holy) mountains in search of instruction and to share his extensive knowledge, wisdom and experience. At forty years old, Master Xu Yun decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai (五台山 - Wu Tai Shan) – prostrating after every third step – in atonement for the pain and suffering his birth and life had caused his parents culminating at the ‘Dharma Culture Temple’ (法华寺 - Fa Hua Si) situated on Mount Putou (普陀山 - Pu Tou Shan). After years of travelling and suffering from hunger, cold, snow, heat and disease, Master Xu Yun finally arrived at Mount Wutai. At least twice on the journey he was in terrible and desperate danger, but was rescued on each occasion by the timely intervention of the Bodhisattva Manjushri (文殊菩萨 - Wen Shu Pu Sa), whose compassionate function is to rescue people in distress whilst adopting various incarnations and disguises.
Even when Master Xu Yun was 95 years old (in 1934/1935) he was still working hard (and making light of discomfort) when he repaired the ‘Southern Culture Temple’ (南华寺 - Nan Hua Si) of the 6th Patriarch Hui Neng (惠能) situated in ‘Caoxi’ (曹溪) in Guangdong province. The 6th Patriarch Hui Neng left his body in 713 CE and he has remained sat-upright in the cross-legged meditation posture ever since. He also repaired a resurgent temple at Yun Men (云门) also in Guangdong province. It is believed that Master Xu Yun practiced Ch’an meditation in at least 15 different temples and holy places. He inherited the ‘Five Houses’ (五宗 - Wu Zong) of the Ch’an School (禅门 - Ch’an Men) and single-handedly rejuvenated life back into the lineages of the Six Great Patriarchs (六大祖庭 - Liu Da Zu Ting) of the Ch’an tradition. In 1953, he was promoted to be the Honorary President of the Chinese Buddhist Association. Throughout his life, Master Xu Yun often endured that which no ordinary person could (or should) endure. After his illness during the ‘Yun Men Incident’, Master Xu Yun dictated his autobiography to his nearest disciples. When asked to write a poem as a short over-view of his life, Master Xu Yun wrote:
‘Witnessing 5 emperors and 4 dynasties, continuously experiencing the 10 vicissitudes of life.
Immense suffering is the normal human condition, without a doubt all life is impermanent.’
The ‘Five Emperors’ are: 1) ‘Daoguang’ (道光), 2) ‘Xianfeng’ (咸丰), 3) ‘Tongzhi’ (同治), 4) ‘Guangxu’ (光绪) and 5) ‘Xuantong’ (宣统). The Four Dynasties are the: a) Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, b) Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, c) Republic of China and d) People’s Republic of China. The ‘10 vicissitudes’ of life are: I) born in a fleshy-sack, ii) hungry and covered in snow, iii) life-threatening dysentery, iv) bleeding from the mouth, v) falling into water and nearly drowning, vi) serious illness, vii) suspended by a rope in water, viii) abdomen cut-open, ix) whole body paralysed like dead wood and x) whole body beaten. Having lived into his 120th year of life, obviously there are many, many interesting and wonderful stories associated with his practice, experience and adventures. Collections to access include ‘Empty Cloud Dharma Master Autobiography’ (虚云法师年谱 - Xu Yun Fa Shi Nian Pu), and the popular TV-Series in Mainland China entitled ‘One Hundred Year of Empty Cloud’ (百年虚云 - Bai Nian Xu Yun). With regard to the latter, many who watch are reduced to tears to witness the selfless attitude and conduct of Master Xu Yun!
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2019.
Original Chinese Language Text: http://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1643153104898406572&wfr=spider&for=pc
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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